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Can First Impressions Be Deceiving?

According to one of my former boyfriends, he absolutely hated me when first we met. I have to say the feeling was mutual. I had just gotten off a red-eye from New York to London and was tired, cranky, and hadn’t showered. Our first impressions changed but researchers aren't so sure that they do.
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After we got to know each other, however, we embarked on a yearlong, extremely satisfying relationship of mutual respect and appreciation, proving that first impressions don’t always last.  Or do they? Researchers of psychology and behavior seem to think so. Their work has shed light on why we form first impressions and how they affect our relationships. But I wonder—are we doomed to live up to the image we project in the first thirty seconds of meeting someone, as these researchers claim? 

The Invisible Checklist
Our brains consider many factors when forming first impressions. In general, we make associations between people and positive feelings. For example, the authors of an October 2008 study published in the journal Science found that people who held a hot cup of coffee for ten to twenty-five seconds before meeting someone rated their first impressions of the stranger more positively than those who held iced coffee. The subjects literally “warmed” to the people they were meeting because they associated the strangers with the comforting feeling of gentle heat. 

Though the authors of this study did not speculate on the cause for the connection, evolutionary biology may be at play here. When we are happy and secure, we have less reason to feel threatened by strangers and are less likely to want to distance ourselves from them as a defense mechanism. In other words, if I’m not in danger of being hungry or cold, I don’t have to worry as much that you’ll steal the wood I need to make fire and I can be nice to you instead. 

In addition to concrete feelings like warmth, our brains process a variety of sensations when we meet someone for the first time. Facial expressions are key—a smile versus a frown makes us register to others as a friend, not a foe—as are all the factors that affect our general levels of comfort and senses of security. Color and proportion matter because our brains register incongruities of any kind as jarring. If someone with a warm complexion is wearing cool colors, for example, or a set of clothes that doesn’t fit them well, our animal brains will tell us that something is amiss and dangerous, and we will form a negative impression associated with that person. 

First Impressions That Last
Because this reaction to others is so basic and primal, it happens very quickly. Research, as in the studies compiled in the book First Impressions, edited by Nalini Ambody and John Skowronski, suggests that we form a distinct impression within the first thirty seconds of meeting someone new. And yet these almost instantaneous reactions stay with us for a long time.

First impressions set a vicious cycle in motion. According to Max Weisbuch, a post-doctoral fellow in the psychology department at Tufts University, our first impression of someone colors our interpretations of that person’s ensuing behavior. This means that when there is ambiguity about the cause of a behavior, we choose to believe in what best agrees with our first impressions. For example, if we form an idea of someone as an aggressive person based on his facial expression upon meeting, we would attribute his talking loudly to anger rather than to a more benign reason, like his simply wanting to be heard over environmental noise. In turn, that raised voice becomes more “evidence” of our impression that the person is mean and aggressive. 

This is why first impressions last so long; we are constantly refueling them with new perceptions that have been affected by the original. Only if we can break the cycle of collecting prejudicial evidence—as my former boyfriend and I apparently did—can we form new impressions that may be closer to reality. 

Straighten That Tie, Suck in That Stomach
If you want to make a good first impression—on a potential employer, a date, your boyfriend’s parents, etc.—mama’s wisdom still holds to be true. Smile, clean behind your ears, and don’t slouch. You want to make sure you’re projecting positivity in order to make the other person feel that you are a safe (in the evolutionary sense) person with whom they can build a relationship. Hygiene and good manners are factors in that projection. 

Be warm and generous and work toward the other person’s comfort. If they’re happy, they’ll associate the feeling with you and keep coming back for more. Whether that means offering a comfortable seat, placing a reassuring hand on the person’s elbow when you say hello, or laughing at their jokes, do everything to project an aura of positivity about yourself. Dressing in warm colors, like golds and rich browns (avoid red, which reads as aggressive) and wearing clothes that fit you well also creates a sense of harmony and security. 

And just to be on the safe side, it never hurts to have a pot of freshly brewed hot coffee at hand.

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